‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls; for thus, friends absent speak.’ John Donne
In any study of history, the input of those who produce it is vital. In the case of correspondence – a personal source, not intended for publication – this input is particularly special. But how can historians understand epistolary networks in an age when the epistolary art has almost disappeared?
One answer, paradoxically, might be: through digital reconstruction. Increasing dissatisfaction with the digital experience has seen many returns to analogue editions of classical books, so why not analogue communication? What are letters if not – like modern social media – written conversations between ordinary people who cannot be together in person?
The Digital Epistolary Network is an interdisciplinary collaboration devised and administrated by Oxford postgraduates, aiming to facilitate communication between the diverse entities involved in the digitisation of correspondence, in order to develop digital frameworks to illuminate the study of written correspondence in an age when this is increasingly obsolete, and to use this unique type of evidence to determine how the digital can illuminate, perhaps even define by contrast, what makes us human.
Our site is currently under construction but will contain news, resources, and blog posts from students of correspondence. In the meantime feel free to investigate our conference.
We are holding a conference entitled Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age on Tuesday 21st June, 2016. Daytime panels and discussion will take place at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, and further discussion, poster presentations and a conference dinner at Wolfson College, Oxford.
The conference is generously sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Bodleian Libraries and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, and further involves the participation of Oxford University Press and Blackwell’s.
Registration for the conference is now open. For more information on the venues and programme, and to register, please click the link below.
Speaking in Absence
Letters in the Digital Age
Who are we?
We are a team of (currently) three postgraduates in the Faculties of English, History, and Classics at the University of Oxford. We share an interest in the use of correspondence for social and intellectual history and in the developing field of digital humanities, and a dissatisfaction with the various obstacles to collaboration between the institutions that make up the British ‘academy’. Our project aims to make such collaboration easier and has four key innovative characteristics:
- It takes a view of ‘interdisciplinary’ that goes beyond academic disciplines to professions and institutions, including the general public.
- It promotes training in diverse skills with a view to inspiring the creation of more projects.
- It aims to make connexions outside the humanities more collaborative and less hierarchical.
- It is generated by students, who will one day be researchers and thus have a special interest in the preservation and presentation of our sources.
Every written source has an imagined reader who mediates between the author and the scholar. In the case of written correspondence, the imagined reader is an imagined listener – a personal acquaintance who cannot be addressed in person. This makes written correspondence a unique type of testament to the social milieu of the time in which it was written, and a unique reading experience.
However, in an age dominated by ‘social media’, written correspondence networks are a formidable challenge for scholars. The increasing proliferation of digital formats has seen a transformation in the way we conceptualise ‘texts’ and ‘editions’ but also a remarkable resurgence in interest in printed books. Correspondence is a particularly fascinating vehicle for examining these phenomena. Digital tools can illuminate connexions and patterns difficult to see through analogue handling, while drawing attention to aspects of the original material that might be lost when reading a conventional print edition. This material experience, in the case of a personal source, is something magical and ephemeral that warrants preservation as much as the source content.
By ‘digitising’ correspondence we do not simply mean the creation of digital images but the production of digital editions that draw attention to the material aspects. Our project brings together the diverse entities involved in this process in order to develop mutual frameworks for all disciplines to use this unique type of evidence to determine how the digital can illuminate, perhaps even define by contrast, what makes us human.
Who is involved?
Editors (scholarly, critical, and technical)
Traditionally, scholarly editing as a research output has not always garnered the same reverence as literary criticism – despite the fact that it requires as much, if not greater, knowledge of the material. It also involves knowledge of other methods, including increasingly ‘technical’ abilities, which may previously have been under-valued and under-utilized in academia but can now be employed to harness the complex analytical processes which digital methods enable. Meanwhile, the scale and detail of the view exposed by digital methods has become associated with an approach that makes the original author’s environment more perceptible. It thereby makes points of contention surrounding editorial principles and decision-making more visible, forcing us to question what the art of editing obscures, as much as what it clarifies.
Publishers and booksellers
Beyond the evident issues of presentation, the question of user engagement with any digital interface is a matter of particular concern for publishers, who typically mediate the relationship between scholars, their audience, and the general public. Publishers have traditionally conveyed credibility and stability, yet must now navigate an academic scene in which data proliferates to bring curated content – often in both print and digital form – to the reader/user. We hope to elucidate the relationships between the ‘editor’ as a critical textual scholar and the ‘editor’ who commissions or prepares an edited text for publication. The participation of booksellers is essential to help academics understand how the ordinary reading public wishes to engage with correspondence material – including on digital platforms, where usage habits often remain mysterious.
Libraries and archives
New interest in the materiality of literary sources, the constant accretion of digital resources, and the corresponding drive to understand the evolving potential of digital platforms have brought about a new need for the particular skill set of the Special Collections librarian. Institutions have a vested interest in greater involvement in the use and dissemination of the information they hold, an interest which alone can ensure the continued conservation of valuable historical material, and the academic and practical expertise of curators is a vital link between more project-focused academics across faculties, colleges and departments. We hope to drive increasing engagement with physical collections in ways that clarify and underwrite the need for stable digital infrastructures that can enhance, rather than replace, engagement with the materials.